Each year for the past 6 seasons I have taken Oh!, my 40 Leopard Catamaran, south to spend the winter months in warm waters exploring the eastern Caribbean and Bahamas. The voyages have always been wonderful. This season Andy Den Otter and I joined forces to create an opportunity for two people to experience an ocean passage and get a bunch of hands-on training along the way. Several years ago Andy had joined Oh! in Norfolk, VA at the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay for the initial passage leg to Bermuda. We quickly developed a comradery and mutual respect for what we can each contribute to passage making and have stayed in touch ever since. Andy has a passion for sailing and is a natural instructor. Plus, he is very intelligent but with the curiosity of a child. Complement that with his engineering training and IYT Yacht Master Instructor rating and it all creates an amazing combination – especially for problem solving on a sailboat. We were joined on the 14 day adventure by Tony (from the Foothills Association of Cruising Sailors) and Vic (from the Bluewater Cruising Association). Neither of them had any offshore experience, and for Vic, it was his first sailing experience. Why not jump right in with an ocean passage to start? After all, what’s the worst that could happen?
I had been in Deltaville, Virginia for the past 6 weeks preparing Oh! for the passage and cruising in the Bahamas. During that time the days slowly changed from warm fall days and beautiful sunshine to damp and cold, so both I and Oh! were more than ready to go. November and December can be very cold in the Chesapeake Bay with chilly winds and freezing temperatures at night, and Oh! is just not fitted out for that type of weather. Therefore, the plan was to get moving toward warm weather and blue seas as quickly as possible. There was some last minute provisioning to do, a COVID-19 Rapid Antigen test for myself, the applications for our Bahamas Tourist Visas, and an extensive walk around and safety briefing for Tony and Vic to get them aware of the gear, systems and layout of Oh!. That process required almost two days. Then it was a simple matter of checking the weather forecasts one more time and clearing US Customs and Immigration. We were fully loaded and ready to departed Norfolk at 1400h on December 6. I do not think I have ever seen Oh! sitting that close to her water line.
Passage to Bahamas
As is always the case with respect to ocean passages, weather is a key factor. There had been a series of cold fronts in the previous weeks that always brought strong northerly winds, which could clock 360 degrees in just 24 hours, or settle in for many days. Offshore, the northerlies would gain strength and steady 30-40 knot winds were not uncommon. That variability can make the seas around Cape Hatteras very rough. The famous Cape is where the last of the south flowing Labrador Current meets the fast northeast flowing Gulf Stream and is legendary for its rough seas in the wrong combination of winds and current. I have been fortunate that during each of my 6 passages around the Cape, I have never seen it as anything but mild mannered… and hope to keep it that way. We were fortunate that Mother Nature wanted the passage to be a success and she made her contribution by providing a perfectly-timed weather window to sail south around Cape Hatteras and then southeast across the Gulf Stream.
Just 36 hours after departing Norfolk VA, we had rounded Cape Hatteras and were half way to Cape Lookout when, right on cue, the northerlies switched to westerlies and we had our window to cross the Gulf Stream and head offshore to warm waters. The westerlies lasted just 8 hours before slowly clocking around to the north again, but that was long enough to get us well past the 30 NM wide Gulf Stream and enjoy the light winds as we sailed southeast, putting some distance between us and the Gulf Stream. It always amazes me the difference just 50 miles makes in the air and sea temperature: the multiple layers of clothing slowly got stowed and the heater was put away for the season. There was some swell left over from the variable weather patterns and, at one point, I could clearly see at least 3 sets of wave trains coming from different directions. That caused confused seas and a noisy ride as waves would rush between the hulls, or hit the bridge deck when they combined to make a sudden peak in a wave. However, it was a beautiful day despite the choppy seas and we enjoyed the warm air and bright sunshine. Just 10 hours later, a cold front coming off the continent reached Oh! at 2000h and we got caught with only a double reef in the main sail.
Normally I would have preferred to have no main sail up and simply run with only 30% of the genoa out. To ease pressure on the rig, I decided to furl the genoa rather than try to douse the main at night in rough seas and the 30-45 knot winds. We were on a starboard tack broad reach, and with just a double reefed main sail up, there was a lot of weather helm so we used the starboard engine to counter the turning forces of the main sail. This had the double benefit of reducing the weather helm and dampening the tendency for Oh! to head up as the following seas began to grow and we surfed and slowed with each passing wave. The technique worked really well, getting us through the gusts of up to 45 kn and heavy rain, which slowly dissipated overnight. We almost set a 24 hour distance record for Oh!, but the 173 NM was 5 NM short of my record. Not bad though considering 1/3 of that 24 hours was in pretty light winds.
By the time the sun rose, Mother Nature had morphed the fast moving cold front flowing off North America into a warm tropical breeze; we now headed almost due south toward the Bahamas. The next 4 days were spent sailing in 10-15 kn of winds on a port tack beam reach with a slight 0.5 m swell and light wind chop, blue skies and spectacular starlit evenings – tropical sailing at its best! The long pants, fleece and jackets were replaced with shorts and t-shirts, accompanied by smiles all around.
Each day Andy gave Tony an introduction to Celestial Navigation with impressive results and surprising accuracy. They would take multiple sun shots and compare results – it wasn’t long before they were both detecting and correcting each other’s small errors. As the weather settled and Vic became accustomed to the boat’s motion, the daily instruction expanded to include building Vic’s sailing knowledge, skills and confidence. He was preparing for an upcoming charter and courses he had booked in the BVIs, so he was eager to learn as much as he could.
We entered Conch Cut at the north end of Elizabeth Harbour just as the sun was about to disappear over the horizon. The winds were perfect to sail around the reefs and shallows right up to Monument Beach on Stocking Island, where we dropped our anchor without even starting the engines – a perfect ending to the passage. It was 1800h on December 12, the sun had just set and within just a few minutes it was completely dark, other than the anchor lights from the more than 30 cruisers that had arrived before us and the stars above.
The passage was 840 NM (1556 km) and took 6 days, 4 hours from start to finish. Along the way we experienced air temperatures from 0°C to 30°C, sustained winds ranging from 0-40 kn (74 km/h), gusts to 45 kn, grey to sparkling blue seas, 0-2.5 m ocean swell, a few squalls of note and one strong cold front. The final 3 days were absolutely perfect trade wind sailing conditions on a beam reach in very gentle seas. As a first time experience to give some “new to the offshore” sailors a great introduction to the variability of ocean sailing, the passage could not have been better.
Practical Sail Training
The rapid departure from Norfolk and swift passage also meant we could enjoy a full week of basic sail training in the warm calm waters of Elizabeth Harbour, at George Town. The first 2 days of our time in the Bahamas were spent working through the process of clearing into a foreign country by yacht. The clearance was complicated by my need to navigate the uncharted waters of obtaining a charter license under their new rules; I had a rapidly growing number of charters I had booked for the season. However, once those tasks were complete, we were ready for training. During our week we were very fortunate to have steady 15-20 kn winds, which made for perfect sailing conditions in the flat waters.
The next four days were spent going over all points of sail, boat handling, basic coastal navigation, knots, maritime rules of the road, Man Overboard (MOB) simulations (now “person” POB, or “crew” COB overboard drills), and weather forecasting. We practiced sailing on and off anchors, reefing, basic piloting with hand bearing compasses and paper charts, and sailed around patch reefs to demonstrate how the sun angle affects your ability to see them. The harbour is large, with many good anchorages and depths between 0 and 6 meters. When sailing here we frequently heard the depth alarm informing us there was less than a meter under Oh!’s keels. It was a good lesson in looking at water colour to gauge depths rather than the charts, which are very inaccurate with the shifting sands that are common in the Bahamas. Combine those shallow depths with lots of patch reefs, rocks, islands and plenty of harbour traffic from all the cruising boats and water taxis and it is a lively place to practice tacking, gybing and the collision regulations. There was a lack of floating docks, however, so we decided that docking skills would be replaced with engine powered piloting skills. We used an area along a steep but straight portion of the island with a deep channel all along its length to teach boat handling skills. The steep jagged limestone rock wall provided a good reference to practice along. However, I made sure that we kept a safe distance as the boat was maneuvered past the jagged rocks. As the chart plotter showed at the end of the four days, we had made good use of those perfect winds and flat waters for the practical sail training.
Our maneuvering exercises provided lots of amusement for the crews of the many anchored boats around us, as they wondered what the heck we were doing. It would have been fun to hear their conversations as we did forward, reverse and figure eight maneuvers, stopped, pivoted 360 degrees without fore or aft movement, and then repeated everything 2-3 times so everyone got a turn. Both Vic and Tony are looking at chartering catamarans in the near future, so the goal was to get them comfortable with maneuvering in tight quarters under power without using the rudders. Several of my cruising friends approached me later telling me of the chatter between the boats as they watched that crazy Canadian catamaran: “Were they looking for a perfect spot to anchor? No. Maybe, they dropped something and were looking for it? Or… maybe they are just nuts!”
Time for Play
We also had time for enjoying some of the natural wonders of the Bahamas. We saw turtles, hiked the beaches, paddle boarded and even swam with a small pod of two adult and one infant dolphin for about 15 minutes. It was amazing to be in the water and have the adults nudging the infant close to us as the dolphins swam around us – a truly incredible experience that unfortunately occurred just as the sun was setting making for dim pictures. We also met other cruisers and enjoyed burgers and drinks at the Chat ‘N’ Chill grill on Stocking Island.
That second week on the boat clearly revived Vic’s enthusiasm and desire to pursue further sail training. His enthusiasm had taken a bit of hit due to a somewhat uncomfortable first week getting used to “ocean motion”.
I must say it was one of the most enjoyable passages I have had during the past 7 years and over 30,000 nautical miles of deep blue seas. I am looking forward to Andy re-joining Oh! in March for another Cruise and Learn. Cheers to all at BCA!